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The Pheromone Revolution—Sexual Attractants and Their Effects on Sex, Confidence and Health

In the 1870s, the noted French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre noted that male moths were fpheromonelying for miles around to visit a female moth caged in his lab. Fabre speculated that the female moth was emitting a chemical scent that was attracting the males. Almost a century later, in 1959, the German chemist Adolf Butenandt ushered in the age of modern  research when he successfully isolated the active chemical, bombykol, that proved so alluring to male moths.

Noted author Lewis Thomas examined the powerful effect of this remarkable chemical messenger on the male moth in his short essay, “A Fear of Pheromones.”

“The messages are urgent, but they may arrive, for all we know, in a fragrance of ambiguity. ‘At home, 4 p.m. today,’ says a female moth, and releases a brief explosion of bombykol, a single molecule of which will rattle the hairs of any male within miles and send him driving upwind in a confusion of ardor.

But it is doubtful if he has an awareness of being caught in an aerosol of chemical attractant. On the contrary, he probably finds suddenly that it has become an excellent day, the weather remarkably bracing, the time appropriate for a bit of exercise of the old wings, a brisk turn upwind. En route, traveling the gradient of bombykol, he notes the presence of other males, heading in the same direction, all in a good mood, inclined to race for the sheer sport of it. Then, when he reaches his destination, it may seem to him the most extraordinary of coincidences, the greatest piece of luck: ‘Bless my soul, what have we here!’ (“A Fear of Pheromones,” Lewis Thomas in The Lives of a Cell, 1974, Bantam Books)

The sixth sense?

Attraction, courtship and reproduction are among the most beautiful, complex and baffling of all human interactions. Why are we attracted to one person, but not another? Do we really fall in love at first sight? And how do we know when the “chemistry” is right? The processes that govern how, why and with whom we fall in love have eluded and frustrated artists, poets, philosophers and scientists through recorded history.

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Now, modern research is beginning to shed light on some of the mystery surrounding sexual attraction. Researchers and scientists are now convinced that chemical signals, invisible to our five normal senses, play an important role in not only how we select a mate, but also whether we can bond and remain with that partner over a lifetime. And as it turns out, the long sought path to the human heart may be right under our nose.

Sex sells

Modern advertising employs an almost obscene range of erotic imagery to grab our attention—and for good reason. Millions of years of selective evolution have given modern humans a brain that is hard-wired to respond to visual sexual cues. Consequently, when we search for a prospective mate our initial selection is based on perceived visual attributes such as attractiveness, symmetry, fitness, health and social status. Once a suitable prospect has passed inspection and been allowed to approach to within arms’ length, a new set of biologically produced chemicals begin to exert a subtle yet profound effect on our desire. These chemicals, called pheromones, are sexual messenger molecules produced to convey a subconscious message of sexual interest and intent.

Isolating human pheromones

In the 1960s, a group of anatomists at the University of Utah began to investigate the chemistry of human skin using cells recovered from used arm and leg casts. During the course of their work one of the researchers noticed something unusual—when vials containing these chemicals where left open, the previously contentious and aggressive demeanor of the laboratory researchers began to give way to a cheerful sense of good will and camaraderie. Later, when these same vials were closed, the scientists drifted back to their previous habits of competition and isolation.

Over the next 30 years scientists embarked on a search for this odorless chemical with the power to turn a group of grouchy lab workers into a cooperative and energized team.

Pheromones

The word pheromone comes from the Greek words Pheran (to transfer) and Horman (to excite). Pheromones are complex organic compounds utilized by all animals, from protozoa to the higher primates, as a means of communication. In complex animal societies specialized pheromones facilitate the cooperation of individuals for a number of functions. Some examples:

  • Insects such as ants and bees use alarm pheromones to trigger an instant and violent response if a colony comes under attack.
  • Rabbits release dispersion pheromones to demarcate territorial zones and to disperse members of the group in the presence of a threat.
  • And boll weevils produce aggregation pheromones to inform others of the presence of food or new habitats for colonization.

While specialized pheromones can serve a range of species-specific purposes, sexual pheromones play an identical role in all species—they convey sexual excitement and intent to potential mates.

The vomeronasal organ

Garden variety odors and scents are detected by cells within the nasal cavity by the main olfactory epithelium (MOE). Pheromones, on the other hand, are perceived by a separate accessory structure known as the Vomeronasal organ (VNO). In 1813, the Danish anatomist Ludvig Jacobson described his discovery of this organ located in the nasal cavity of mammals. The VNO has been shown to be exclusively connected to specialized centers of the limbic system.

Once believed to be a purely vestigial organ in humans, research has confirmed the existence of the VNO in humans. In one study in 1958, histological examination of the nasal septum revealed the presence of vomeronasal cavities in approximately 70 percent of all adults. Later, microscopic examination in 1991 was able to clearly identify the presence of vomeronasal organs in 100 percent of adult subjects. This lead to the conclusion that the VNO is present in adult humans, and that this specialized chemosensory organ has evolved to do one thing: detect human sexual pheromones.

The limbic connection

Researchers have shown that the human VNO is connected directly to the limbic system, that part of the brain that is responsible for exploration, flight or fight, for identifying with the environment and reacting to it. The limbic system is also responsible for controlling emotional and behavioral patterns. As William Regelson, M.D., describes it, “You can tell when someone is paying attention or reacting to you with a deep connection, because their eyes glow. This is because they connected with their limbic system. You’re really limbic when you’re in love—your eyes glow. If you’re a religious fanatic, your eyes glow. If someone is in love with you, you can tell, because their eyes glow—they’ve formed a deep limbic connection with you. And this is why the eyes are, in a very real sense, the seat of the soul. And I think that pheromones are really the key limbic stimulants involved in love and lovemaking.”

Timing of menstrual cycles

Once the presence of a working pheromone receptor (VNO) in humans was proven, the next step lay in understanding how pheromones actually work on humans. Unlike insects, humans do not drop everything at the first whiff of a few delicious carbon molecules and assume the mating position. But for all our evolved sophistication and Byzantine sexual cues and responses, an accumulating body of data has firmly established the working presence of these stealthy chemicals.

One of the first indications that humans produce and respond to pheromones was the discovery that women living in close proximity tend to synchronize menstrual cycles within a few short months. Researchers then discovered that chemicals produced in the armpits of females at different phases of the menstrual cycle influence the timing of their cycles. In a 1988 study by Stern and McClintock, researchers collected underarm perspiration from women at specific intervals during their monthly ovulation cycles. After the samples were treated to render them odorless they were applied above the upper lips of a second group of female volunteers. The results were that the onset and length of the ovulation cycles of the second group of volunteers were altered to synchronize with the first group.

Investigators speculate that the synchronization of menstrual cycles is an evolutionary trait with two important purposes: First, by closely timing their menstrual cycles, women would reject all the men of their group at the same time and force them to go out to hunt. Second, by synchronizing the menstrual and birthing cycles, women would give birth at the same time, allowing them to optimize available resources for the care and protection of their young.

“This study, I think, really is the first definitive study that shows that humans have pheromones,” said McClintock at the conclusion of the study. “We still need to know whether we use them on a regular basis, but they are there.”

Pheromones and immunity: the smelly t-shirt study

It is now recognized that pheromones play a role in conveying the genetic makeup and health of a prospective reproductive partner. Major histocompatibility complex (MCH) genes are among the most diverse of all genes, constituting, in essence, a genetic signature of the individual. MHC genes help the body to recognize its own healthy cells, to identify invading pathogens and to reject foreign tissues.

MHC genes also give each individual a unique odor that can be detected. Among mice it is well known that MHC genes play an important role in mate selection. Inbred mice, identical except for MHC genes, prefer the odor of closely related nest mates. Once they enter puberty these mice show a marked preference to mate with mice whose MHC genes are most unlike their own.

Once pregnant these mice revert to their early preferences and return to nest with males with similar MHC genes. Scientists speculate that nesting with relatives ensures not only help in nursing and raising the young but also offers protection from strange and potentially dangerous males. The preference for MCH-dissimilar mates is also seen as important for reducing the risks of inbreeding and genetic diseases.

To see if MHC genes play a role in human mate selection, Klaus Wedekind, a zoologist at Switzerland’s Bern University, conducted a unique experiment involving smelly T-shirts. Wedekinds’ team recruited 49 women and 44 men who were screened to assure they carried a wide array of MHC genes. Each man was given a clean T-shirt and instructed to sleep in the shirt for two nights to thoroughly saturate the material with his scent.

The shirts were then gathered and placed in cardboard boxes with sniffing holes in the tops. Each woman was brought into the lab at the midpoint of their menstrual cycles and presented with a choice of seven boxes to sniff. Three boxes contained T-shirts from MHC-similar males, three from MHC-dissimilar males, and the last box contained a clean shirt as a control. The women were asked to smell the boxes and rate them as smelling either pleasant or unpleasant. The researchers discovered that the women preferred the scent of men with dissimilar MHC genes. Many of the women also commented that the MHC-dissimilar shirts reminded them of their boyfriends, both past and present.

Breakthrough in human pheromones

Cosmetics purporting to contain pheromones have been around for a number of years, each promising to increase one’s sexual attractiveness and prowess. In fact many of these cosmetics, packaged as perfumes and colognes, did contain a real pheromone, called androstenone. Derived from pig saliva, androstenone has been shown to be extremely effective pheromone, causing an almost immediate and uncontrollable mating reaction —if you happen to be a pig. And though one may argue that humans often behave in a piggish manner, thankfully we do not respond to porcine pheromones.

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The real breakthrough in human pheromones had to wait until 1986 when researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia isolated and synthesized the first working human pheromone. The result of this research is now available as the first human-derived, clinically tested pheromone, CogniScent™.

Using CogniScent

CogniScent is packaged in a convenient roll-on applicator that is used to gently apply a small amount of human pheromone directly under the wearer’s nose. Only a small amount of CogniScent is required, as it takes but a few molecules to activate the limbic system. Since pheromones don’t have to travel through the bloodstream, CogniScent begins to act immediately.

The human VNO has been shown to be connected directly to the limbic system, that part of the brain that is responsible for exploration, flight or fight, for identifying with the environment and reacting to it. By applying CogniScent under the nose one is directly stimulating one’s own limbic system and keying into the region of the brain that controls our emotions, mood and desires.

Why use CogniScent?

Modern humans possess a highly refined sense of personal hygiene. We bath or shower almost daily, removing any trace of our natural pheromones. We drench ourselves in deodorants and fragrances to further mask any natural scent. And as if to add insult to injury, we cover ourselves from head to toe in clothes, blocking the very skin that produces our natural pheromones. In short, we do everything within our power to hide or mask our sixth sense and short circuit our ability to communicate chemically.

CogniScent gives us the ability to reestablish a sense of chemical comfort and well-being with those close to us.

What to expect when you use CogniScent

The pheromones in CogniScent work primarily by stimulating the limbic system of the wearer. While there is a secondary effect on members of the opposite sex, most of the effect takes place in the person wearing CogniScent. People using CogniScent have reported a wide range of benefits, including:

Elevated mood: Women in particular seem to suffer a loss in self-confidence and sexuality following age-related drops in pheromone production. Both men and women who describe themselves as feeling depressed and “down in the dumps” report an improved sense of well being and a more positive and energetic outlook on life when wearing CogniScent. Researchers, excited by the therapeutic benefits of human pheromones in restoring sexuality and improving self-esteem, are also looking into using human pheromones to alleviate panic attacks and mood disorders.

  • Enhanced sexual attractiveness: In a double-blinded study testing the human pheromones contained in CogniScent, 20 women received pheromones three times a week. The women receiving the pheromones, applied topically, reported a significantly higher rate of sexual contact with men than women using a placebo. A second double-blind, placebo-controlled study conducted in 1998 found that men who received human pheromones tended to also have more sexual contact with women than the men who applied the placebo.
  • Enhanced romantic relationships: CogniScent works via the reproductive endocrine system to enhance existing sexual cues and improve chances for enjoying a satisfying romantic life. One man reported that he and his spouse, caught in the doldrums of a long-term marriage, had drifted apart and were only having sex on average about five times per year. “Since I’ve been using the pheromone straight, it’s five times a week!”
  • Enhanced working relationships: A journalist researching human pheromones decided to try CogniScent to test the results for herself. “I immediately noticed that the people I work with were looking at me and smiling more than usual. I finally realized that it was me—that I was making more eye contact with them and sending a message of confidence I didn’t normally project.”

Real life —the twins test

To test the effectiveness of pheromones in real-life, ABC News conducted an impressive if somewhat unscientific test in March of 1988. Two sets of identical twins—two sisters and two brothers—were taken to a popular New York bar. Human pheromone was applied to one of the twins in each pair, while the other got plain witch hazel. Neither twin knew what they received. The only rules for the test were that they were to trade places throughout the evening, and they couldn’t make the first move toward contacting other bar patrons.

The results for the men came out about even—a handful of women approached each of them. This isn’t unusual, as fewer women will approach a strange man in a bar. But the results for the women were more dramatic. Shari, the twin wearing the witch hazel, was approached by 11 different men over the course of the evening. But Stasea, wearing the human pheromone, was chatted up by 30 different men, nearly three times as many as her identical twin sister.

Shari noted that “People didn’t even want to talk to me, and my sister got all the attention. It was incredible, truly.” Stasea’s reaction to the pheromone was that “They didn’t just talk, they were ENTHRALLED with me!”

Concluding the report, ABC News Medical Corespondent Dr. Nancy Snyderman asked “about the situation in the bar,” to which reporter Bill Ritter said, “The results astonished us. We can’t deny what we saw happen in the bar.”

Conclusion: better living through chemistry

Many factors influence our attractiveness to others. Physical attractiveness, age, health, fitness, social status and character are but a few components known to affect one’s perceived attractiveness by a potential mate. Only recently have researchers been able to uncover the unseen chemistry that controls our mating strategies—unconscious odors and undetectable odors that comprise the human “sixth sense.” The human pheromones contained in CogniScent directly energize the limbic system of the wearer to boost confidence, stimulate the libido, enhance romantic possibilities and contribute to an increased sense of well-being.

References

  1. Cutler, W.B., “Human Sex-Attractant Pheromones: Discovery, Research, Development and Application in Sex Therapy. Psychiatric Annals.” The Journal of Continuing Psychiatric Education, Jan. 1999, Vol. 29, 1:54-59.
  2. McClintock MK, “On the nature of mammalian and human pheromones.” Ann N Y Acad Sci, Nov. 1998 30; 855: 390-2.
  3. Wedekind C, Furi S. “Body odor preferences in men and women: Do they aim for specific MHC combinations or simply heterozygosity?” Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. Oct 1997; 264 (1387): 1471-9.
  4. Wedekine C, Seebeck T, Bettens F, Paepke AJ. “MCH-dependent mate preferences in humans.” Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, June 1995; 260 (1359): 245-9.
  5. ABC News, “Sniffing Out a Mate” from the Pulse Program. Host Nancy Snyderman, M.D., on ABC News Saturday Night with Bill Ritter, March 28, 1998.

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